After hearing Avery Hall sing at a dive club in Harlem, Lester “Pres” Young advises Count Basie to bring her on as their new singer. And that’s how 19-year-old Avery goes from being a waitress living in a small apartment to traveling aboard the Blue Goose – Basie’s bus – throughout the United States during the 1930s and into World War II. Along the way, she learns about America’s varying levels of racism, especially in the Deep South. After the war, Avery leaves the band, but not the “family,” and settles into a comfortable life in New York.
Here, she is forced to confront her own prejudices when she meets Karl, a man she first accuses of being a good-for-nothing Nazi because of his accent. Then she learns that he is a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany via Shanghai. Together, they embark on another journey through American prejudice, this time as a mixed-race couple.
Don’t let Girl Singer’s length deceive you. Carlon packs an entire world into those short pages. And what a marvelous world it is: from Harlem and the Jazz Age, to Southern racism, Nazi hatred, and finally Chinese-Jewish culture. The sounds of jazz, of nightclubs and dance halls and the swinging beat of New York, are written so eloquently that the reader can almost feel the rhythm rumble off the pages like an improvised jazz note. This is an incredible novel that works as both a lesson on jazz music and the people who created it, and as a window into American racism and hatred. A fast read, but a don’t-miss, must-read book.
This book is an Editors’ Choice book for May 2016 with the Historical Novels Review
Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/girl-singer/